Sunday, 18 December 2016

Welcome to the age of the gangsters


Now you know all about Donald Trump (above) by now. He says that he could shoot someone down in the street, and he'd still be popular. He says he might not respect election results. He flirts with torture. He threatens to jail his main opponent (before saying he won't). He singles out individual journalists and trade union leaders for verbal harangues, both on social media and in person. He calls on the Russian state to hack rival politicians. He praises the autocracy of Vladimir Putin. He tries to cave in the businesses of companies - from Boeing to Vanity Fair - who happen to disagree with him. He cajoles. He wheedles. He shouts. He bellows. He stamps his feet.

There's a good word for this, and before you say, it isn't fascism: it's gangsterism. Mr Trump lacks the private militia, the uniform-wearing - and if everyone's really honest, the will to total power - that gets you a really paid-up season ticket to the fascist club. He's not interested in ideology, particularly - though as mid-twentieth century fascists' grip on ideological consistency was often deliberately slippery, that difference on its own doesn't matter all that much. So. He is a bully, a narcissist and a sociopath, but reality seems a bit more prosaic than all the epithet-slinging that Democrats will (understandably) subject him to. The President-Elect is an almost perfect reflection of and vessel for the fury of older white men in the Rustbelt. He feeds off the power of that anger all the time: and as such, he often just indulges himself in an endless stompabout designed to stoking both his ego and the self-image of his voters. He must be the outsider pitched against the know-it-all insiders. He has no choice. History has veered off, somehow, into burn-it-all down biker gang nihilism, and if striking a pose that looks very much like a fist with a wig on top isn't to your taste, you'd best look away now.

While Mr Trumps stamps around as deafeningly as possible, it just so happens that both himself and his nearest and dearest will become just as rich as they possibly can. His daughter sat in on his first summit with the Japanese, all the better to assist with her business interests in that country. Mr Trump's hotel in Argentina suddenly got clearance when he was elected (though any outright collusion has been denied). He has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conflicts of interest all over the globe - including, reportedly, in Taiwan, site of his first confrontation with Beijing. He's not going to put all his investments in a blind trust, whatever anyone says. Perhaps he'll do very tidily out of the wall-and-fence on the Mexican border. No doubt his Cabinet of billionaires will profit very nicely out of the likely economic boom of the next two or three years, as Mr Trump smashes through all the deficit limits and budget caps that Republicans used to say they cared about.

Now, we'll grant you that this is leagues less sinister than Mussolini's take-over in Italy (for instance), but it's still not great. Most dangerously, it's a recipe for confrontation between the USA and Russia that could boil over in all sorts of frightening ways. Bear in mind that most wars are caused by miscalculation about the extent to which rivals and opponents will fight to protect their interests. The first Iraq War of 1990-91 began when a US official erroneously gave Saddam Hussein the impression that the Americans might not protect Kuwaiti independence, for instance. Mr Trump has already given out by far the most dangerous signals of his short time in public life: that he is not altogether keen on NATO, and that he might not defend NATO states (such as Russia's Baltic neighbours) if they don't pay their way. John Kennedy said of the Soviet leadership in his inauguration that the US 'dare not tempt them with weakness'. That's exactly what Mr Trump has done already. He's sown the seeds of future miscalculation, and bigly. No doubt the Russian cyber-attacks, misinformation and nativist propaganda are already lined up ready to go.

When and if Mr Putin betrays The Donald - over Iran, perhaps, or over the Baltic States, or by continuing to meddle in American domestic politics - Mr Trump necessarily has to take him on with the same blowhard red-faced rantathon that he's indulged himself in so far - shouting at China, for instance, over the seizure of a not-particularly-significant US naval probe. So the bromance will fade rather quickly. The White House's new inhabitant knows, for one thing, that he has to keep the rage up. That's how he continues to signal to his core electorate that he's battling for them. That they're not small. That the type of language that they recognise and admire is being sent out to do their work in the world. That 'the system' is still being attacked - in whatever new way lies to hand. That America's status, and by extension the status of everyone in America who feels threatened by globalisation and interdependence, is being puffed up by talking about the great big stick they've got ready if they're really forced to use it.

The second reason why an era of eyeballing is likely is that Mr Trump no doubt recognises his mirror image when he sees it. Where have we seen this before, this concentration of power in the hands of one bully-boy leader prepared to talk over the heads of 'the political classes'? This interest in personal and familial enrichment, this decadent life of gold elevators and big plush hotels? This constant demonisation of the many apparently sinister non-national and non-nationalist forces of opposition who threaten 'the people', backed by the unnamed and unnatural forces of global banking and finance? That's right - in the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, among the ruins of which a lot of extremely unscrupulous people became very, very rich. Richard Nixon was paranoid without much cause. Mr Trump can see a very good reason to be paranoid in the reflection cast back at him by Mr Putin and his increasingly-impressive cast of mini-mes and yes-men across both Europe and the world. 'What would I do in his position?', Mr Trump will ask himself. That's right: threaten, negotiate in bad faith, and then throw any agreement in the bin as soon as its usefulness has expired.

That'll tip everything into a new cold war defined not by staring at each other in Berlin, but by shouting at each other over the internet. Because what will inevitably happen if you pitch a comedy wrestling fanatic with a serious inferiority complex up against a top-off, horse-riding, judo-loving, bear-wresting ex-KGB tough guy? Probably this: a jaw-jutting, musk-spewing, arm-wrestling struggle. That's the third reason we're heading for confrontation between East and West, whatever the warm words that you'll hear for now: the sheer machismo of the new world disorder, not so much a howl of rage against modernity as a grunt of image-building weightlifting effort for the watching masses. It's not going to be pretty - like watching not one but two past-their-best John Waynes strutting around the international system as if they own the place. The fact that, yes, they do actually own the landscape makes things even worse.

International diplomacy has always been a grey world. Real people have always got crushed beneath its wheels. But the next four (and quite possibly the next eight) years are going to be marked by a kind of hyper-'realism' that is no realism at all given how much a transactional politics this stark raises the risk of outright confrontation. Consider these questions: will an apparent pass to do what they like in Syria mean that the Russians will cut their Iranian allies loose, allowing harsher American economic or even military action against Tehran? Will any American soft-pedaling on the defence of Eastern Europe get the Americans the reward of a harsher Russian line on China in the Pacific? Will the two powers want to team up and stifle internet neutrality and free speech itself? Will Washington's sudden silence on human rights and anti-Russian sanctions win them some juicy Eurasian business contracts? Those are deals for high stakes indeed, and they could easily come apart at any time. If they were ever going to work, they would involve both men learning to walk a diplomatic tightrope. Any such agreements would also depend on the two Presidents understanding the role of empathy and trust, lest immediate defection from any one of those deals become too tempting. Their past actions demonstrate no aptitude for this whatsoever. Betrayal, mistrust and the increasingly-fervid swamp politics of national self-interest are far more likely.

So - welcome to the age of the gangsters. It's going to be yuge. And yugely dangerous.

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